I could write this review of Browntrout without mentioning how horrific the name is. But let’s be real: In the pantheon of words that no restaurant should ever use in its moniker—Blood, for instance, or scum (gastroenteritis is pretty bad, too)—Browntrout, while new to the list, ranks high. It evokes grisly images of swollen fish from the Chicago River. Worse, it doesn’t even hint at this restaurant’s firm commitment to pure, sustainable fish—or, for that matter, its great staff, homey dining room or its sophisticated and nuanced food.
The name allegedly comes from one of the best meals chef/owner Sean Sanders (who worked at BIN 36 before this) ever ate, but it could just as easily be that the guy has a thing for trout. It is, after all, on his menu three times, once as an entrée (cooked simply in brown butter) and twice on the “Browntrout fish trio.” Whatever the case may be, the name works insofar that it’s direct and straightfoward—just like Sanders’s food.
Take that trio, for instance. Of the three preparations—cured trout , smoked trout, pan-seared perch—each one exhibited clean flavors that were so impressive it was unusually difficult to pick a favorite. (I did pick one eventually, though: The cured trout was as delicious as any cured fish I’ve ever had.) Compared to such a pleasant dish, the waffle fries that share the appetizer portion of the menu with the trio are, in comparison, clunky and overwrought—they’re served with a bowl of melted Gruyère, which had an overwhelming (though not entirely unpleasant) funk. But this misstep was the exception. Sanders’s understanding of flavor is incredibly keen, and when he combines his nuanced palate with his impeccably executed meats, the food gets pretty close to perfect. Juicy chicken thighs get paired with creamy polenta and an appropriately salty jus. Lamb is plated on top of expertly rendered risotto and paired with peas so fresh that Sanders wisely leaves them practically untouched. And the walleye (pictured), beautifully seared, is given a shot in its arm with a lively salsa verde.
Still, this is not the kind of food that makes a big production, so the molecularly minded, the fussy, the scenesters—they should eat here at risk of disappointment. Here, it is assumed that you prefer a well-cooked (and ethically raised) chicken over one painted with gold leaf. It’s taken for granted that you eat seasonally and have no regular cravings for xanthan gum. And it is assumed that you wouldn’t want elaborate sugar work on your dessert, that you would be happier with the strawberry shortcake (really more of a shortbread here) or the chocolate-chip cookies. Though I’ll admit that those cookies, attributed to the chef’s grandmother, didn’t knock my socks off. But don’t take it too hard, Grandma. As far as the rest of your grandson’s repertoire goes, I probably think he’s as special as you do.